Honey I Broke the Senate

Written in December 2005 at the end of the most important fortnight – IMHO – of John Howard’s final term. Handed control of both houses of Parliament, the Prime Minister swerved hard right and gave a textbook demonstration of what ‘power corrupts’ means. Turns out they were planting the seeds of their eventual destruction. I’d been working for Senator Rachel Siewert for only a couple of months, and this was an awful, eye opening few days. A couple of hours after I wrote this, they rammed Voluntary Student Unionism through the Chamber just to cap off the fortnight…

What a spectacular couple of weeks in the nation’s capital! I’ve been trying to set some thoughts down for the last fortnight but we have been flat to the boards since we got here. In the little slivers of free time that presented themselves, I’ve found myself in such a state of shocked bewilderment that I’ve not known how to start. But it’s very nearly all over in here apart from hosing the radioactive waste off the walls.

The Government has broken the Senate. In the space of a fortnight, the so-called ‘house of second thoughts’ has been presented with a radical Industrial Relations bill the size of a phone book, a crackdown on disabled welfare recipients and single parents, and the deletion of key civil rights several centuries in the making. The icing this morning was the radioactive waste bill being bashed through so that the government can do whatever it likes with several thousand tonnes of radioactive waste. No surprises – it’s going to end up in a shed on Aboriginal land in Central Australia.

A hundred years ago the folks who put the constitution together knew that power has a habit of concentrating itself in fewer and fewer hands, and they sought to distribute it as evenly as possible between the states, territories and the commonwealth, and set the two houses of parliament and the courts against each other to provide a check to abuse. The pace with which John Howard and his genuinely scary friends have set to dissolving these obstacles has been impressive to watch; even crusty old conservatives are deciding that Howard is a radical who’s gone too far.

It’s been really, really grim. Labor have soiled themselves on the terror legislation but apart from that have been pretty good, but they’re flailing around in furious impotence while the Government just rams things through. The night the IR bill went through, the public gallery held a smattering of union organisers who applauded Labor, the Dems, and the Greens but by then it felt like we’d gone into freefall. A furious storm was ripping into Canberra at precisely the moment the guillotine came down, and the power in the chamber failed for a time.

Workers of Australia, as far as the Government is concerned you are absolutely on your own. From here on, the protections of collective bargaining are a thing of the past unless you’ve got a gold pass to the gentlemen’s clubs like the chambers of commerce and industry.

After taking a whole week to shove the massive IR bill through, someone decided not to bother with even the pretence of due process for the rest of the programme. If there’s been a time in history when the role of the Senate has been abused with such joyful recklessness, I’d be fascinated to hear about it.

They started in with the terror laws on the same day as bringing the hammer down on welfare recipients, specifically those on disability pensions and single parents (most of them women). Half a century’s worth of nuclear waste was looming in the background. The reedy sound of the bells that send MPs and senators scurrying down the polished halls for divisions became a constant background hum.

Guillotine after guillotine, reams of opposition amendments sent to the trash without even being subject to the brief flash of debate before being voted down. Even Family First’s schizophrenic proposals got the axe. If the Coalition doesn’t need your vote, sunshine, you don’t really exist.

We holed up in our offices downstairs, cranking out speeches, motions, media releases, committee referrals and questions. We watched the dismal spectacle of Government Ministers casually dismissing any possibility of input from the cross-benches or opposition. Nic and I sat in the Senate public gallery and watched as the last possibility of sanity entering the terror debate was snuffed out. As a juicy backdrop, we’ve been reading reports all week of the Australian Government’s casual sabotage of the climate change talks in Montreal, to the dismay of governments and climatologists from all over the world.

In the occasional lulls we’ve flaked out in the courtyards with the overweight but highly lyrical magpies that come up and pinch your lunch. This building is a very beautiful place to work, a marble and glass mandala that is full of natural light, native timbers and views into lush gardens. But it’s also like being sealed into a cocoon. There is no tangible contact with the inhabitants of this far-flung continent, just a surreal atmosphere of stress, privilege and compromise filtered through the archaic political machinery of Westminster.

For anyone who worked on the federal election campaign last year, we are getting our money’s worth out of the four Greens senators. Somehow they manage to be everywhere and, apart from occasional flashes of brilliance from the Democrats, are an island of commonsense and principle amidst a swamp of complacency and arrogance. I have never been more proud to be involved with this mob than in the last fortnight.

It took nine sitting days for Howard’s dream of comprehensively shafting the whole country to become a reality. It is not simply ideology at work here as far as I can see, this is sheer pragmatism. Howard is working his way down the Business Council of Australia’s wishlist for a highly disconnected, disenfranchised workforce so desperate they’ll climb over each other for whatever wretched employment the corporations trickle down on them.

Making our case through the institutions the unions carved out for us over a hundred years of struggle is no longer an option. Civil disobedience and thought crime will gradually be subject to the medieval charge of sedition, closing down other painfully established avenues of dissent. Next year the regime has Indigenous land rights, restrictions on media ownership and student unions in the gunsights. Watch for the sly stuff – electoral reform (such as closing the rolls early) which change the underlying rules through which political ambition is channeled.

There’s an ancient, unmistakeable dynamic at work here which is self-accelerating. Every impediment removed, every check and balance legislated away makes it easier for the executive to extend its range yet further. And the temptation to exercise this power is irresistible – as it would be if it was a Labor government or a Green government with the whip hand. Separation of power isn’t merely academic, it is deadly serious and was put there for a reason by constitutional architects who had a much more intimate idea of state tyranny than we do. I know I’m prone to melodrama but the country can’t afford another term of being remade in this perverted caricature of redneck neo-liberalism. If we don’t tip this lot out and get the Senate back in 18 months time we are well and truly up the creek.

So for the next year and a half, I’m raising my glass to an old-fashioned mass movement of regular people who will rise up and cast these mean-hearted, narrow minded old men into history. It may not quite be a peasant revolution, but it’s going to be the people who teach John Howard’s kids, the people who clean the toilets, the people who pick the fruit and drive the taxis and answer the telephones and mine the iron ore and build the skyscrapers in which these calculated abuses are hatched. They’re going to hook up with the more traditional networks of social change and shake this place to its foundation.

Things will still be a real mess after the 2007 federal election, but if we can’t build a warm-hearted sustainable Australia with the liberals in the House, we’ll just have to do it without them.

Scott Ludlam – Communications and Campaign Officer for Senator Rachel Siewert